August 2, 2018 – Punch
La Sobremesa, or “the over-the-table,” is the most emblematic portion of any big meal in Mexico, the stretch of time and conversation after the eating is finished, when the table cloth is soiled and spotted, and when empty glasses outnumber full ones.
If any drink is emblematic of the sobremesa, it’s a carajillo.
The Mexican carajillo—made from espresso and Licor 43, a yellow-gold elixir from the South of Spain, poured over ice—turns up at old-school institutions like Contramar and the century-old Bellinghausen, at fancy cocktail bars and third-wave coffee joints and at many (though certainly not all) of Mexico City’s countless cantinas. It’s sweet yet potent and, despite its ubiquity, a relatively new addition to the city’s drinking culture, which, until a decade ago, rarely strayed beyond beer, whiskey, tequila and the occasional Cuba Libre.
The original carajillo hails from Spain—north or south is a point of contention—where it’s an early-morning fixture in working-class neighborhood bars: a shot of espresso served alongside brandy, anise, rum or aguardiente. Think of it as the Spanish equivalent of an Irish Coffee, Norwegian karsk and Italy’s perfectly named caffè corretto, or “corrected coffee.”
According to one origin story, the first carajillos, made from coffee and rum, were mixed on Cuban plantations and served to indentured laborers to give them coraje, or “courage,” to get through the day. The Catalan writer Josep Pla claims the name is Catalan. In the 19th century, he wrote, workers who moved goods between Catalonia’s big towns would stop at their local bar and order coffee with aguardiente que ara guillo—old street slang for “in a hurry,” derived from the Catalan word guillat, or “crazy.”
Meanwhile, Pilar Montes de Oca, a linguist at Mexico City’s Universidad Autónoma, or UNAM, says the drink originated in Andalusia, where morning drinking is commonplace, “because people down there are like that,” she says. The name, she tells me, is likely a diminutive for the exclamatory expletive carajo!—the equivalent of yelling, “shit” or “fuck it.” “A carajillo,” she says, “is something that, in the moment you drink it, you say carajo.”
For decades, practically the only people drinking carajillos in Mexico were members and descendants of the Spanish diaspora, who would gather for elaborate, formal lunches in places like the 155-year-old Casino Español—a place sporting white coffered ceilings and liveried staff and perfectly coiffed clientele-of-a-certain-age—or at Bar Mancera, founded in 1912 and still decorated with dark wainscoting and a Tiffany-style stained-glass window.
In the early 2000s, what had once been a Spanish worker’s drink became the preferred post-prandial, pre-party pick-me-up for the city’s moneyed youth: Mexico’s (far superior) answer to a Vodka Red Bull. After that, says journalist Julio Patan, author of the book Cocktails with History, “it came to Mexico and what happened is what happens: it became baroque.”
There are two ways to order a carajillo in Mexico City. If you ask for it puesto, the two ingredients will arrive neatly divided on the rocks, the black coffee settled queasily over a lurid swirl of liquor as though it knows (better than you do) that they have no business sharing a glass. If you ask for it shakeado—like the Italian shakerato, derived from the English word “shaken”—the bartender will intervene, whipping the drink to a healthy froth in a cocktail shaker, then pouring over ice into a lowball glass.
Maybe the most salient feature of the original to have crossed the Atlantic is that quality is really beside the point. In most places that serve carajillos, the coffee is mediocre at best, insufficient to balance out the saccharine, two-ounce glug of Licor 43, named for the number of ingredients it purportedly contains. Vaguely identified on the label as “made from Mediterranean citrus and select botanical ingredients,” its flavor, usually identified as some bastard cousin to vanilla, is as mysterious as its color is unsettling. “If Amaretto is almond,” I ask one bartender at the Cantina La Reforma, “then 43 would be…?” “Sweet,” he answers.
In the decade or so since Mexico City youth started ordering carajillos, they’ve become popular enough that it’s virtually impossible to open a bar without offering one. When Cicatriz, the all-day café from American brother-sister team Scarlett and Jake Lindeman opened 18 months ago, Jake, who runs the bar program, had no intention of including carajillos on his menu. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to make that, that’s gross,’” he says, “but then people kept ordering them.”
Before long, local food press had labelled Lindeman’s carajillo—made with higher quality Cucurucho coffee—the best in town. Since then, he’s developed his own version of the drink, which he described to me as an “improved” carajillo: equal parts Licor 43, brandy and cream with a shot of espresso, shaken and poured into a highball over ice. “It’s basically a melted milkshake,” he says. It’s delicious and potent.
The carajillo at Cicatriz is certainly (and by far) the best I’ve tasted, but it is not, I’ll admit, the one I crave. Because my platonic carajillo is not, by any rational standard, a good drink. It’s cloying and unbalanced and, as Patan pointed out, both utilitarian and over-the-top. It’s irresistibly fusty, the sort of thing my Manischewitz-swilling, Irish-Catholic great-grandmother would have loved. It’s served, as it was the first time I drank it at the classic Cantina Mirador de Chapultepec (a favorite among the city’s famously corrupt politicians), in an oversized brandy snifter under the gracious eye of a bow-tied bartender, elbow-to-elbow with people who couldn’t possibly care less whether it’s actually “good” or not.
It’s a drink that makes you say carajo—fuck it.